Want to be a better person? Read novels.

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And put that self-help book down.

I recently read an article in The New York Times called “Your Brain on Fiction,” wherein author Annie Murphy Paul engages the latest neuroscience research to argue for the usefulness of reading novels.

This sparked my interest immediately, since, living among a concentration of Bay Area yogi types, I am constantly having to defend my novel reading when there are apparently so many self-help and spiritual books I should really be consuming.

I have never been much of a self-help reader. When I crawl into bed at night after a long day dealing with people and things, the last thing I want to do is work on myself. Give me a good novel and let’s call it a day.

I’ve always felt like reading novels was a dirty pleasure I allowed myself to help get through it all. But more and more lately I’m reading reports that fiction is actually an important creative and linguistic outlet for the brain, especially for us diehard introverts. In her New York Times piece, Paul makes the point that stories stimulate our brains to learn and grow. Our minds latch on to evocative descriptions that help us understand things in terms of our five senses. Here is an example from the Times article:

From The New York Times “Your Brain on Fiction" by Annie Murphy Paul

Reading fiction is not just a silly hobby or a way to up our vocabulary ante; evocative descriptions, metaphors and narratives actually affect our brains in a precise way that makes us better equipped to understand people and life. Words and phrases with descriptive associations connect to the part of our brain where it counts. We affiliate more deeply with writing that appeals to our attachment to taste, smell and sound.

Ever since someone close to me once told me that people who read fiction are “stupid,” I’ve made it my mission to justify my lifelong reading habit. Like a lot of my ’70s-childhood generation, I grew up in a largely unsupervised environment without internet or cable TV. We were set loose and made our own adventures.

My brother and the boys I grew up with were regular little Huck Finns. But, not being a very good tomboy, my adventures were usually to be found in the pages of the books I checked out of the tiny one-room local library in my rural Western Massachusetts hometown.

Of course, as a writer, I’ve had to also get out there in the world and actually do things occasionally, if only for the sake of having something to write about. So I’m not suggesting that one will grow and improve as a human being merely by curling up with a good Salinger or Franzen. Or, not just that way, at least. But, it’s not a bad start.

I also found this, while flipping through O Magazine at the library recently. It’s from “The New Health Rules” by Leslie Goldman in the February 2012 issue.

“The New Health Rules” byLeslie Goldman in the February 2012 issue of O.

And there, at last, is the crux of it. Most readers I know are thoughtful and introspective sorts who really get their friends and greater humanity. In contrast, I’ve met more than one disdainful non-fiction reader who turned out to be an actual clinical psychopath. So for all you bookworms out there who, like me, have gotten through life by taking refuge in books, take heart—you’ve been on to something all along.

P.S. Here are some of my favorite books of all time.


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Editor: Kate Bartolotta

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Joslyn Hamilton

Joslyn Hamilton is a freelance writer living in beautiful Marin County, California. She is one of the co-founders of Recovering Yogi and also launched Creative Truth or Dare. Joslyn has an imaginary spice + skincare line called SimpleBasic. She is a functioning craftaholic and counts hiking, cooking, reading and rabid tweeting among her many chaste vices. Reach her directly at [email protected]

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anonymous Dec 11, 2012 10:06am

[…] you while you escape onto a balcony, into a bathroom or a bedroom. Shut the door and breathe. Or, find a book and read a few pages. Get yourself grounded with a little alone time and then re-enter the […]

anonymous Dec 9, 2012 10:12am

I am a total introvert! I love my books, and books make up almost all of my Xmas wish list. I am so glad that I have so many great friends to suggest new fiction book series to me. I am always reading like 5 to 15 different series. I think it must help memory too, I remember all the characters’ names and histories. Most people I knew in high school who never read anything if they could help it could rarely even remember what they had for breakfast a few hours before, and had no empathy for anyone. I wished I could have helped out somehow. I am always told of good self help books, but I can’t usually make it past the first few pages. When I read it’s a movie, if there’s no mental pictures in the book I don’t really wanna read it. 😛

anonymous Apr 21, 2012 11:06am

[…] about the things I used to do for fun when I was 8, they haven’t really changed all that much: reading, making up stories, hanging out at the library, adventuring around in the woods by […]

anonymous Apr 20, 2012 3:20pm

[…] is why I snuck up to the counter of a local bookstore to buy, if the Buddha dated: A Handbook for Finding Love on a Spiritual Path by Charlotte Kasl. […]

anonymous Apr 17, 2012 7:25am

Self-help books run the gamut – from the ridiculous to the insightful, but it seems that one great problem with over-consumption of such things is navel-gazing to the extreme. Ironically this can occur even with the reading of pseudo-spiritual-self-help books where the goal is ostensibly to dissolve the ego. The power of a well-written novel is that it gives us the opportunity to forget ourselves and our own perspective for awhile. When a character is written convincingly, even if we don't always agree with them or if we have nothing in common with them, by reading about them, reading their thoughts, watching their actions we are able to have compassion for them and understand them more fully.

Also I believe that the capacity to think from another person's perspective may come more naturally to some than others, but I think it is something we ALL can work on and be better at. I honestly believe reading good novels helps train you in precisely that 🙂

Besides life so frequently seems too short – and I am so grateful that novels give me a chance to experience more than just my own little sliver of human existence!

anonymous Apr 16, 2012 5:08pm


thank you so much for the article! I just gabbled another "comedy le art" novel by one of my favorite authors. I felt guilty about it, since there is so much I need to read / do.
I've always been an avid reader and I also grew up in a largely unsupervised environment without internet or cable.
sharing on FB!


anonymous Apr 12, 2012 3:17pm

Truly good site thank you so much for your time in publishing the posts for all of us to learn about.

anonymous Apr 11, 2012 10:55am

Absolutely. I not sure what is sadder that I don't do it enough or that I've probably doing it way more than 99% of most Americans!

anonymous Apr 10, 2012 1:18pm

Many thanks for sharing this very good post. Very interesting ideas! (as always, btw)

anonymous Apr 10, 2012 1:01pm

Yep. as Owen Meany excitedly exclaimed in "A Prayer for Owen Meany" by John Irving, "It's better than T.V."~! and from Irving's THE HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE, “It is hard work and great art to make life not so serious."

and “My life is a reading list.”
― John Irving, "A Prayer for Owen Meany."

and “And the thing about love," Wally said to Angel, "is that you can’t force anyone. It’s natural to want someone you love to do what you want, or what you think would be good for them, but you have to let everything happen to them. You can’t interfere with people you love any more than you’re supposed interfere with people you don’t even know. And that’s hard,” he added, “because you often feel like interfering – you want to be the one who makes the plans.

“It’s hard to want to protect someone else, and not be able to,” Angel pointed out.

“You can’t protect people, kiddo,” Wally said. “All you can do is love them.”
― John Irving, "The Cider House Rules"

anonymous Apr 10, 2012 11:19am

[…] in reincarnation or heaven, believe in the present moment and live everyday how you want to. Read a novel, sit in the sun, sweat, stare into the eyes of someone you love and really look, get butterflies, […]

anonymous Apr 9, 2012 9:30pm

[…] To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee Inspired to fight censorship, and have fun doing so? Read. […]

anonymous Apr 9, 2012 1:50am

Thanks for sharing your favorites, I love sharing favorite book lists. The books I return to over and over again are:
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Watership Down by Richard Adams
All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot
I better stop there or I'll just keep going and going. Once again, thanks for sharing.

    anonymous Apr 9, 2012 10:51am

    Great additions, Julia! I loved As I Lay Dying when I read it way back in high school, and should give that one another read. The God of Small Things is one of my favorites, too. I haven't read the top few — will put them on my list!

Bob Weisenberg Apr 8, 2012 11:02pm

That's why I switched to literature after starting out in engineering at Stanford (a long, long time ago).

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anonymous Apr 8, 2012 3:46pm

Yeah for novels – and thank you for sharing … an avid reader, I too have defended my affinity for diving into novels as often as I can. I really love anything: autobiographies, history, science … but there is something special about the magic and emotion of a story. As a behavioral scientist, I dare say I have learned as much about humans and life from our "stories" about them than from all our "investigations". (and I agree that I am burned out on self-help!)

Kate Bartolotta Apr 8, 2012 2:06pm

I love this so much! Especially since The Little Prince is pictured at the top. It's the only "self-help" book you need! I love reading dharma books and creative non-fiction about weird science stuff and history. But self-help? Lame. Give me a novel under my favorite tree…that's all the self-help reading I need.